Moroccan student convicted in Sept. 11 attacks, gets 15 years

By Daniel Rubin Knight Ridder Newspapers (KRT) HAMBURG, Germany _ A German court on Wednesday convicted a Moroccan student of being an accessory to the murder of thousands in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, concluding that Mounir el Motassadeq was an al-Qaida operative who helped the Hamburg cell headed by Mohamed Atta carry out the suicide hijackings. In a heavily guarded courthouse, Motassadeq, 28, the first person to go on trial in connection with the attacks, received the maximum sentence that German law allows, 15 years in prison, for his role in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Throughout the trial, which began in October, the former electrical engineering student proclaimed his innocence, acknowledging that he had attended a training camp in Afghanistan that Osama bin Laden operated and had sent money to his fellow Muslim students. But he said he had no idea they were planning any violence. Prosecutors countered that he had played an “ice-cold” role in helping a plot to turn airliners into weapons that resulted in “the most terrible terrorist attack in history.” Presiding Judge Albrecht Mentz found the prosecutors had made their circumstantial case. “The accused belonged to this group since its inception,” Mentz said in reading the verdict. “He knew and approved the key elements of the planned attacks — including the high number of victims.” The judge cited the testimony of Motassadeq’s former roommate, who quoted him as saying, “They have something big planned — the Jews will burn and we will dance on their graves.” When the judge gave the sentence, Motassadeq, standing with his arms crossed, squeezed his eyes shut. He was stunned by the verdict, one of his lawyers said afterward. The lawyer said they would appeal the verdict, which also found that Motassadeq belonged to a terrorist group. A tall, gaunt man with a thin beard, Motassadeq (Mo-ta-SAH-dek) moved to Germany in 1993. After studying German, he enrolled in an electrical engineering program at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg. Two years later, according to Germany’s chief prosecutor, Motassadeq met Atta, the intense, Egyptian-born leader of the group of seven Islamic students who formed the nucleus of the Hamburg al-Qaida cell. (EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE) Three of them would pilot the hijacked planes: Atta, Marwan al Shehhi and Ziad Samir Jarrah. German authorities have accused three others of preparing the attacks: Ramzi Binalshibh, who was captured last September in Pakistan, and Said Bahaji and Zachariya Essabar, who disappeared shortly before Sept. 11, 2001, and remain at large. Motassadeq, who is married and the father of an infant son and young daughter, stayed in Hamburg. Prosecutors said his role was covering for the pilots while they were taking flying lessons in the United States. He had power of attorney over al Shehhi’s bank account, during which time $17,000 moved through the account, and he handled university paperwork to hide his friends’ absences, prosecutors charged. Six days after the attacks, German investigators talked to Motassadeq but found no evidence that would allow them to detain them, a Hamburg police official said at the time. Investigators continued to watch him and forbade him from leaving the country while they looked into his affairs. (EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE) A week later, Motassadeq told Knight Ridder he was shocked to learn that his friends had piloted three of the planes. He repeated that assertion in court last month after five American relatives of those who died Sept. 11 traveled to Germany to tell the court about their suffering. “Their testimony affected me, like everyone else, and they looked at me as if I was responsible,” Motassadeq testified. “I was shocked when I saw the pictures. I could hardly understand that people I knew had done this.” His attorneys had argued unsuccessfully that Motassadeq could not get a fair trial because the German government refused to turn over information developed by the CIA that might have helped his case. The head judge shared his frustration that statements from Binalshibh, a former Hamburg student who’s in U.S. custody in a secret location, couldn’t be used in court. U.S. officials refused to make Binalshibh available and the German government wouldn’t make public a report of his interrogation, saying that would compromise their agreement with the United States. Testimony from Binalshibh also is being sought by lawyers for Zacarias Moussaoui, an alleged al-Qaida member whose trial is in the preliminary stages in a Northern Virginia federal court. The judge’s call for testimony from Binalshibh has led prosecutors to consider moving the case into a military court. ___ ‘copy 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.